Sexism in the Atheist Movement

So, P.Z. Myers made a post talking about the Just Us Women podcast ending. He quotes the reason for its demise as follows:

I will no longer be interviewing women who have left religion, since I cannot in good conscience refer them to the atheist community, where they could find support. … All the resources are tainted with connections to the top tier of misogynist, sexist men.

People in the comments have noted the oddity that she’s not going to interview women who have left religion because somehow doing that would mean referring them to the atheist movement, even though she doesn’t have to do that and has no reason to unless she’s still going to stay in the atheist movement, or considers herself such a tainted resource. I don’t want to talk about that oddity. I want to talk about another oddity, which comes from considering that these women have left religion, and so in general have left religions that the atheist movement considers incredibly sexist, and as sexist as something can possibly be. So, by that, these women have likely experienced the worst sexism that they possibly could have experienced. Unless the atheist movement is worse than the average religion when it comes to sexism — and I’ve argued in the past that it seems like it clearly isn’t — then surely even referring them to the current atheist movement would mean an improvement in the sexism they face from the movement that is so critical to supporting them.

Unless the atheist movement really is more sexist than religions. But that can’t be the case, can it?

When it comes to sexual harassment … maybe it is. See, one of the main differences is that the atheist movement attached itself to progressivism, and progressivism embraced the idea of “sex positivity”. Indeed, one of the main criticism the atheist movement leveled against religion was how repressed and prudish they were about sex and sexuality, particularly in women. Sex was supposed to be fun, and something that everyone should participate in, and that attempting to limit that in any way was denying people not only great experiences, but a critical part of themselves. So free sexuality was important, and all of the traditional sexual mores were done away with, with people embracing things like polyamory and casual sex so that even the idea that sex was something that was supposed to happen between people who were in a committed relationship was lost. As long as the sex was consensual, anything went.

This, of course, ended up being controversial, as it clashed with feminism. The problem was that a lot of the “anything goes” were things that feminism traditionally considered objectifying. This included all forms of sex work, leading to the characterization of some of them as SWERFs. While some denied that sex positivity and feminism weren’t at all in conflict — because of the insistence that it was all consensual — the issue remained. And it’s clear what the underlying issue was: if women were going to be having sex and being sexual, unless they were all going to be lesbians and only have sexual relations with women, that sex and those sexual things were going to be done with and for men … and at least some forms of feminism insisted that doing that would be objectifying. Yes, sex with men and doing sex shows for men could definitely be consensual and could derive from the woman’s desires, but all of that would involve doing things that feminism said men expected women to do in order to please them. Which could lead to them thinking that they were entitled to that from women. The more women who were willing to do those things for men — even for their own pleasure — the more men could justify the idea that those things were what women should do for men. The counter to that is the standard “Restricting women from pursuing what they enjoy is just as bad as what patriarchy did”, which has generally not convinced anyone on the other side.

So what we have is sex positivity which chides anyone for restricting the sexual fun that people can have or seek out, and a sex positivity that is a critical differentiating factor between atheism and religion. At that point, all of the traditional sex norms are gone, and thus all ways of enforcing those sexual norms. In traditional or religious social circles, sex is supposed to be limited to couples in a serious relationship that could lead to marriage. Yes, that wasn’t always followed, but at least if someone “took advantage” of a woman to get sex without commitment the woman could easily be consoled by saying that the man was immoral and bad, and would get sympathy from the social group for that. And someone who called that man out as a cad would be appealing to the overarching social structure, and so would at least get some consideration for saying that the person was breaking the social rules.

But that didn’t exist in the sex positive atheist movement. Casual sex — and the pursuit thereof — wasn’t a bad thing anymore. I wonder how many atheists who noticed some of the more … aggressive approaches refused to intervene not because they were intimidated by the power of the person making the approach, but because they were afraid of being called prudish or its modern equivalent of “sex negative” for interfering with two consenting adults seeking sexual pleasure.

If they couldn’t use that they were essentially being tricked by promises of a long-term relationship into having casual sex — and that therefore that they were being “used” in that way — but still felt “used” in some way, what could they appeal to? Well, the only thing left was consent. If they could claim that it wasn’t really consensual, then they could still condemn the men who took those actions without having to reject sex positivity. For example, with the Michael Shermer allegations, Smith said that he “coerced me into a position where I could not consent, and then had sex with me”, which is incredibly vague and could range from convincing her to let him tie her up to, well, what she ended up claiming, which was that he encouraged her to drink more heavily than she should and had sex with her while she was intoxicated, and presumably too intoxicated to give consent, which tied into the long-standing feminist claim that a woman who was intoxicated could not give consent. Of course, people pointed out that it didn’t seem reasonable to claim that someone else offering someone alcohol, even if they weren’t drinking that heavily themselves, was a kind of coercion that we couldn’t expect people to resist, and the debate was on. But the key was that all of this was being used to insist that she didn’t really consent, and so the sex was wrong, as that’s the only line left that she could pursue.

This led to the reinstatement of some of the old mores, as people insisted that you shouldn’t have simple casual sex with a stranger, but should have sex with someone you knew well and respected so that you could read their cues and so get affirmative consent. This, and the harassment policies, clashed with the sex positivity of people who thought that it meant that they could pursue and get guilt-free sex, and that it was all okay as long as the other person agreed. In fact, most of the clash around harassment policies was indeed about having to put restrictions on who you could pursue and when, with some of the restrictions seeming inconsistent unless you looked at it from the perspective of trying to replace the old “taking advantage of” sexual mores.

Now, which side is right or wrong is beside the point (I think both are in some ways). But the key point here is that in the “sex positive” atheist movement, women were going to get more invitations for sex, those invitations would be more direct, and a sexual atmosphere was going to be more present and more open, and there would be more pressure to be sexually open. For women who found that uncomfortable, there was no real way to deal with that. And even those women who were more comfortable with that were going to have a problem when they ended up feeling taken advantage of. So it is possible that, when it comes to sexual harassment, the atheist movement was worse than religions because it would be more open and there were no social structures in place to deal with it, and attempts to add in those structures felt like ruining all of the fun for those — men and women — who had no problem with the way it was.

Personally, I still think that the impression of egregious sexism more reflects disappointment than reality. They expected the atheist movement to be better than everything else because they came to it from certain progressive and feminist worldviews, and so expected that everyone else did, too. When they found out that they couldn’t, they felt a disappointment akin to finding out that their hero had feet of clay, except that it was the entire movement that had that and not just one or two people. Myers’ entire argument against dictionary atheists is that atheism has to imply the liberal, progressive, feminist values that he supports, even if people disagree with them. When these atheists became convinced that the atheist movement wasn’t going to adopt their entire set of values, the atheist movement itself was seen as unethical, and that caused them to abandon it … even as they ignored that the religious alternative was supposed to be worse by their own arguments.

In their disappointment, they risk abandoning burgeoning atheists to an alternative that they should find even less acceptable. That can’t be what they wanted, but it’s what they’re going to end up with.

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